By Steve Williams
There is still room in NCAA Division 1 basketball for the little man. We’ve seen plenty of good examples in this year’s postseason play.
Diminutive guards Russ Smith, a 6-foot, 165-pounder, and Peyton Siva, also 6-0 but a little thicker, led Louisville to this year’s Final Four. Pierre Jackson, 5-10 senior point guard for Baylor, had his fourth straight double-double (17 points and 10 assists) as the Bears clawed Iowa to capture the NIT crown last week.
But unfortunately it’s looking like there probably won’t be room on the Tennessee roster for Dre Mathieu (pronounced Matthew), the little but exciting point guard from Knoxville Central High School who earned Player of the Year honors in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference this past season.
The Vols recently chose to add a point guard from the high school ranks, offering a scholarship to 6-4 Darius Thompson of Murfreesboro Blackman. Thompson is expected to sign with UT when the national signing period opens April 17, and his signature will put the Vols one over the roster limit.
While Thompson has four years of college eligibility ahead of him, Mathieu has two seasons left, after starring at Central Arizona College and starting as a walk-on at Morehead State University in Kentucky his freshman year.
I understand the math. Four seasons of service are better than two.
I also understand it’s easy for a Division 1 coach to pass on a player the size of Mathieu, who says he’s 5-feet-11-inches tall and weighs 160 pounds, even though the rosters at Central Arizona and Morehead State both listed him at 5-9, 160.
Rick Pitino almost made that mistake three years ago. He didn’t think Smith was big enough and good enough to play at Louisville, but former longtime assistant Ralph Willard convinced him otherwise.
Willard had been on a recruiting trip to see 6-6 forward J.J. Moore when Smith caught his eye at South Kent School in Connecticut. Smith’s tremendous speed made up for his lack of size.
I’ve often thought of Mathieu when watching Smith and Siva and the Cardinals dominate with their exciting brand of basketball, a style that is very much like the Controlled Chaos Bruce Pearl unleashed in his first couple of seasons at Tennessee.
This past season, Mathieu led Central Arizona College to the NJCAA Division 1 tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., where the Vaqueros lost 81-68 in the second round to College of Central Florida, which went on to capture the national championship.
The latest unofficial stats I saw on Mathieu had him averaging 17.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2 steals and 2.9 turnovers this season and shooting 52 percent from the field, 29 percent from 3-point range and 72 percent at the free throw line.
We knew Dre was on the recruiting radar when news hit that he had been offered a scholarship by UCLA. The Bruins, said Mathieu, haven’t been back in touch since Ben Howland was fired and replaced by Steve Alford, but Dre has heard from plenty of other Division 1 schools. He has a visit set up with Pepperdine on April 11 and Ole Miss is coming on April 14. In all, Mathieu has received offers from 14 Division 1 schools.
Others showing interest include Arkansas, South Carolina and Texas A&M. There was a recent report that Memphis was interested in Mathieu, too.
UT associate head coach Tracy Webster saw Mathieu play one game in the national tourney in Kansas.
“Coach Webster was only allowed by NCAA recruiting rules to wish me good luck,” said Mathieu, “and he told my coaches ‘We’ll be in touch,’ but I haven’t heard anything from them since.”
“Not really,” answered Dre. “I’ve got other places.
“When I came out of high school, it was a goal to play at Tennessee. It still would be cool, but I won’t be disappointed.”
It’s time for something good to happen for the Knoxville product. As a walk-on freshman at Morehead State, he started the final seven games of the season but that still wasn’t enough to receive a scholarship.
“I had been told I would get a scholarship if I finished in the top eight in minutes played,” said Mathieu. “I missed by a few minutes.”
So Dre decided to look elsewhere for a Division 1 scholarship. The move will soon pay off.
As for academics, Mathieu said he is in good standing.
“School comes easy,” he said. “I work hard. It’s going good.”
As for basketball, what does he feel is the strength of his game?
“I’m a passer and a leader,” he said. “I make my teammates better. I’m a pure point guard. I love it. I like to pass more than I like to score.”
Mathieu has a lot of folks pulling for him back home, including former high school coaches Mitch Mitchell and Matt Mercer.
“Talent-wise, Dre is probably the best all-around guard I’ve ever coached in high school,” said Mitchell in February of 2011 when Mathieu was in his senior season
“He has awesome character and a grade point average over 3.00. He’s a very kind-hearted kid, respectful, a joy to coach. He’s one of those kids who comes along one of a few times in a coaching career.”
Mitchell, also a former college assistant coach at Carson-Newman, King and Glenville State, W. Va., projected Mathieu would “make an impact on a (college) program.” He is now seeing that prediction become a reality.
Mercer coached Mathieu’s first three seasons at Central, which included back-to-back district titles his sophomore and junior years.
“Division 1 programs do their research and Dre has proven to many D1 recruiters I have personally spoken with that he would be an excellent D1 point guard,” pointed out Mercer. “Several have made comments such as ‘Coach, he is our lottery pick’ and ‘Dre’s not a want for us, he is a must’ and ‘He’s our number 1 guy’ and ‘Love his game and he’s a great kid’ from multiple recruiters. The offers speak for themselves.”
Mercer himself noted Mathieu is “the best penetrator and has the best court vision of finding the open man I’ve ever been around” . . . and since his high school days, “he has become a more complete player.”
“Dre Mathieu is a winner – that’s the bottom line,” added Mercer, who now coaches at Grace Christian Academy. “His passion in life and basketball is contagious. He’s got God-given skill but his heart and passion are what separates him from the pack.”